The Ties That Bind: The River Collection
Rating: 5 stars out of 5 stars
Every artist has outtakes, but few have the breadth of outtakes possessed by Bruce Springsteen. And fewer still can match The Boss in terms of the quality of those outtakes. All of this becomes abundantly clear once again on The Ties That Bind, Springsteen’s excavation of the period surrounding his 1980 double-album The River. This release presents three or four completely different paths that he could have taken at that time, any of which would have produced something worthy of the lofty standards of his catalog.
For those who don’t know the history (and an outstanding documentary included in this package will elucidate it), Springsteen submitted a single disc consisting of ten songs recorded in 1979 to his record company, only to take it back at the last minute. Seven of the ten songs eventually made it onto the double-album, some slightly altered (a few different lyrics on “The Price You Pay,” “Hungry Heart” mixed at a faster speed), some drastically different (for this reviewer’s money, the original rockabilly stomp of “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” beats the more polished version on the final album, while the longer countrified take on “Stolen Car” falls short of the slow-building brooder found on The River.) Of the trio that didn’t appear on the double-album, the only one that hasn’t been previously released is “Cindy,” an affable but minor song of romantic frustration.
The package also includes the version of The River that we’ve come to know. Springsteen was attempting to emulate the feel of his live shows and the rollercoaster of emotions they brought forth, which is why harrowing narratives like the title track, “Independence Day” and “Wreck On The Highway” coexist with loosey-goosey larks like “Sherry Darling” and “Crush On You.”
By casting aside the shackles of thematic unity, Springsteen stumbled upon a theme anyway, one about life’s contradictions, how happiness and heartbreak are often separated by nothing more than fate’s whim and a flimsy moment. The River embodies and embraces those vagaries, making for a crowd-pleaser with depth, one that does indeed outdo the album that Bruce pulled back. If one were to pick nits, it would be with the exclusion from the final album of the pristinely potent “Loose End,” which was originally slated to close out The River. Not only should it have made the final cut, but it would have worked better as the album’s second single than the meager love song “Fade Away,” which dulled Springsteen’s radio momentum after “Hungry Heart” gave him his first big hit single.
Also included here are the finished songs that Springsteen and the E Street Band recorded during sessions from that time that didn’t make the final cut of either version of the album. Many of these have seen the light of day already on compilations like Tracks, but they’re collected here and there are some real heavyweights in the bunch. “Roulette” is as frenzied and furious as the band has ever sounded; “Mary Lou” is an underrated gem; “Ricky Wants A Man Of Her Own” is tasty bubble gum; and “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” is a wild story song with rollicking music to match.
As if that weren’t enough, The Ties That Bind includes eleven more songs recorded from that time that have stayed in the vaults till now. And when you listen to this group as a whole, it sounds like a coherent album all on its own, one which takes things in a vastly different direction than The River eventually traversed. While this group starts out with the big-hearted “Meet Me In The City,” most of the rest of the songs tell how the city hollows you out once you arrive there.
These songs combine some of the musical toughness of Springsteen’s previous album, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, with a little bit of the swagger that the band brought forth on The River. (And if you’re wondering what an electric Nebraska might have sounded like, check out “Chain Lightning.”) Singing over mostly minor keys, Springsteen hints at an elusive, existential malaise in songs like “The Time That Never Was” and “The Man Who Got Away.” “The sound of broken glass and running feet” is a phrase repeated in a couple of these tracks, and that sums up the sustained mood. By the time Springsteen gets around to the mournful “Stray Bullet,” you might not recognize the guy who sounds so ebullient on The River’s party tracks.
The collection also includes a DVD of a typically inexhaustible and engaging live performance in Tempe, Arizona from The River tour. As great as the footage of prime-era E Street Band is, the studio music is the real revelation here and what makes this collection so essential. You can take many of the couple dozen outtakes from the sessions and imagine shoehorning them into The River, possibly even replacing time-tested songs from the album. Such is the bounty contained on The Ties That Bind that it might make you question Bruce Springsteen’s judgment even as you marvel at his ridiculous talent.